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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 7

The Principal Connection / Picking Our Battles

      As principal of an elementary school, I was determined to enforce the long-standing rule of “no gum chewing.” The faculty had clearly spelled out consequences for violating this honored regulation and we consistently enforced them. The second offense incurred an additional penalty, and on the third we called the parents. We simply did not tolerate gum chewing.
      We maintained careful records of chewers and spelled out the evils of gum. When we found wads stuck to the undersides of desks and obstructing the drains of drinking fountains, we ratcheted up our pursuit of offenders. But our efforts were of no avail. Defeated, we regrouped to analyze the point of it all. After collective reflection, we concluded that our many hours spent as chewing-gum police had little purpose other than to demonstrate who was in charge.
      • Show respect for all people in the school community.
      • Keep hands, feet, and all other objects to ourselves.
      • Finish classwork and all homework.
      • Read.
      • Learn as much as we are able.
      This list was narrowed through good-faith debate about wording, number of rules needed, and what observing these rules would look like in practice. This conversation led to rich dialogue about what teachers really cared about for students. Some teachers were less comfortable than others with the simplicity of the rules, but few disagreed with their broad intent. Everyone appreciated the consistency. Staff members found it easier to address the behavior of students from other teachers' classrooms. The mentality of “your kids/my kids” morphed into one of “our kids.”
      Something more significant happened as teachers spent less time deciding on rules and complex consequences: The more seriously we attended to the matter of successful student engagement in learning, the less we needed to address rule-breaking and consequences. When students' daily experiences in the classroom were positive and successful, misbehavior became less of an issue.
      An unintended side benefit to clarifying guidelines for respectful student behavior was our exploration of how these guidelines applied equally to us as adults. For example, asking students to respect differences called on staff members, also, to actively understand opinions other than our own—an extraordinarily difficult commitment. Requiring students to finish classwork obligated teachers to plan lessons and assessments more carefully. Making reading a required behavior for students prompted us to form a weekly faculty book group. We realized that discipline went far beyond the student world.
      Some kids, of course, challenged us at every turn. At times we still called parents, reprimanded inappropriate behavior, and suspended students from class. Neither we nor the students focused on these exceptions, however. The contest of who would “win” died a slow but welcome death.
      I invite readers to examine their own chewing-gum battles. What topics dominate conversations and official communication in your school? Do they focus on rule-making and enforcing, or on kids and learning? If your school culture spotlights student conformity more brightly than the joy and importance of learning, it may be time to dramatically refocus that spotlight.

      Joanne Rooney has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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